Critical tradition: Tribune then and now

As the relaunched Tribune prepares its second issue, Hilary Wainwright assesses the history of the paper and the left Labour MPs who rallied around it – and the lessons it offers today’s Labour left

December 23, 2018 · 12 min read

Tribune, an important historic publication of the Labour left, was founded as a weekly newspaper in 1937 to resist appeasement and work with others to build an anti-fascist movement.

The magazine was supported in parliament from 1964 by the Tribune group of MPs, who acted as a left caucus within the parliamentary Labour Party and played a key role in internal Labour politics at various points. Tribune was the main left grouping in the Labour Party through to the 1980s.

It split in 1981, however, over Tony Benn’s deputy leadership bid. Benn and his supporters went on to set up the Socialist Campaign Group, whose members included Jeremy Corbyn after his election to parliament in 1983. This is widely considered to be the point when Labour’s ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ lefts divided as Tribune broadly supported Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the party.

The Tribune newspaper, later a magazine, continued to publish weekly but struggled financially and became less and less influential within the Labour Party under the Blairite ascendancy. It passed through a series of owners until it was taken over in 2013 by millionaire Blackpool FC owner and convicted rapist Owen Oyston. It has now been bought by US socialist publication Jacobin and revived in a new form.

Throughout the late 1930s, 40s and 50s, Tribune and Tribunite MPs were radical dissenters, challenging the party leadership and championing causes often led from outside the Labour Party. These included the anti-fascist movement of the 1930s, extending public ownership and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Post-1945, however, Tribune became primarily a parliamentary tradition and its leading members – Aneurin Bevan, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot – increasingly succumbed to the power of Westminster to embrace – and suffocate – socialist rebels. When Tribune leaders become members of the shadow cabinet or government, their politics changed.

Corbynism and the Campaign group

While today’s revived Tribune supports Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Corbyn himself – like John McDonnell and Tony Benn – was never part of the historical Tribune group. Others, such as Eric Heffer and Dennis Skinner, left to join the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, created by Tony Benn and others in 1982, partly in response to what they saw as the compromised nature of the Tribune group.

The name indicates how the Campaign group MPs saw their task as campaigning alongside extra -parliamentary movements. ‘We are in fact a different type of group from the Tribune group, which is strictly parliamentary and doesn’t have links outside,’ explained Benn. This ‘lack of links outside’ is a sign of a deeper difference, which makes the history of Tribune rich in lessons for today as we prepare for a Labour government led by the left.

While today’s revived Tribune supports Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Corbyn himself – like John McDonnell and Tony Benn – was never part of the historical Tribune group

Ralph Miliband, writing at the peak of Bennism in the 1980s, contrasted Benn’s engaged relationship with his base with Aneurin Bevan’s more distant form of leadership: ‘Bevan soared above his followers, and did not really seek to mobilise support at the grassroots. Benn did. It is no wonder that he was bitterly hated and reviled, by his erstwhile ministerial colleagues and fellow parliamentarians no less than by all the forces of conservatism proper.’

Benn insisted, as his Campaign group comrades Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell insist today, that democratic socialist change can only come from below, and used his position in the party and parliament to support working-class struggles and alternatives. Corbyn and McDonnell are in this way learning the lessons from the pressures on left leaders ‘from above’ – from the state, the City and the US – that have led to retreat in the past. They have sought to create an antidote in the counter power of extra-parliamentary grassroots movements.

Parliamentary politics

In any critical assessment of the Tribune tradition, we also need to draw lessons from the fact that as the workplace base of the trade union movement became increasingly well-organised and militant in the 1960s, the Tribune group was split between those, like Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, for whom allegiance to parliament and party unity was in conflict with the growing expressions of class conflict and those who understood how integral class conflict would be in the struggle for socialism. Tribune’s deep belief in parliamentarism has acted as a barrier to the Tribune left supporting forms of action beyond electoral politics. This inhibited them from joining left trade union activists in opposing another towering Tribunite leader, Barbara Castle, who, as minister for labour under Harold Wilson, sought to bring in legislation to discipline shop floor militancy.

It is because the Tribune left put parliamentarism before support for class struggle, that a high Tory commentator, Peregrine Worsthorne, could write accurately of the Labour Party that: ‘Much of the stability of this country depended on the Labour Party, which, in some ways, was just as powerful a force for continuity and tradition as the Conservative Party.’ Worsthorne wrote this in 1987 to highlight how different – and in his view, dangerous – was the new left of Benn and the Campaign group.

Benn’s campaign to make MPs accountable through reselection and to open up the election of the party leader was not just bringing class struggle into the party. It was bringing it into parliament and potential confrontation with the state. The success of the movement for re-selection would mean breaking down the protective membrane that the Labour Party provided between the most organised working class in Europe and the British imperial state.

Herein lies a fundamental difference between the Tribunite and Bennite traditions. Leading Tribunites from Aneurin Bevan through Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and the final symbol of an exhausted tradition, Neil Kinnock, had no critical theory of the state under capitalism and no strategy for the counter power needed to challenge and transform it. Without such a theory and strategy, left leaders who attained cabinet positions were unprepared for the powerful pressures to compromise that follow purely electoral victories. They shared the uncritical – bordering on deferential – view of the parliamentary state of the Labour right.

The wheel of state

Michael Foot, to give his original radicalism its due, believed that the House of Lords should be abolished. But his concern was to bolster parliamentary sovereignty through the Commons, rather than any wider challenge to the political and economic establishment. Along with the rest of Tribune and the Fabians, his belief was that socialism could be achieved through the election of a Labour government that would take the wheel of state and drive it to implement socialist policies. The assumption was that the existing state was more or less fit for socialist purpose.

Foot et al saw the state essentially as an instrument – in Bevan’s words, ‘a sword pointed at the heart of private property’ – or a machine to be driven. The task was to win control over the state and use it, not in any sense to transform it. Hence the lack of concern in 1945 with whether the underlying social relations changed. There was no interest from the Tribunite left in, for example, workers or community control. And in the 1950s-60s the debate to extend public ownership, led by Tribune, was about having more of the economy under public ownership, never how the public participated in the public industries.

Benn by contrast, was radicalised by his experience of the state, mainly as minister of technology. It was his experience of the impossibility of even a modernising, let alone socialist, programme of reform that stimulated his openness to the extra-parliamentary left. This was followed by his observation of the creativity of skilled workers resisting the loss of their jobs (most notably at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders), who insisted that their skills were by no means ‘redundant’ but rather provided the basis for a worker-led alternative.

The latter kind of experience led him away from seeing electoral control over the state as the main route to socialism and towards the organised working class and other social movements as the creative driving forces for change. The Labour Party should be refounded, he argued, to support these movements, including through parliamentary action and legislation, creating the possibility of a socialist government that would not be trapped by the Treasury, the City and Westminster but would rest on the sovereignty of an active, organised and politically-conscious people. His project was to change Labour from a party of parliamentary sovereignty to one of popular sovereignty in which Labour MPs would be popular educators speaking truth to power, rather than a political class above the people.

The assumption was that the existing state was more or less fit for socialist purpose

This led Benn to recognise ‘the need for a democratic revolution in Britain to tackle corporate power and the class structure’, in the words of Ralph Miliband. This recognition transformed the debate about both policy and strategy. It opened up the Labour left to the insights of the extra-parliamentary movements that from 1968 onwards had made a critique of the capitalist and patriarchal state fundamental to their rationale.

These movements started to experiment with ‘participatory democracy’ and to challenge the ‘military industrial complex’ that dominated the state – and mainstream political parties. Some, notably the women’s liberation movement, questioned the social relations through which public services were organised, rejecting them as hierarchical and oppressive and embarking on a strategy of autonomous, self-organised social provision.

Bennites reached out to these movements to the point that the Campaign group even co‑organised unprecedented joint social movement, trade union and Labour Party conferences in Tony Benn’s constituency, Chesterfield. Jeremy Corbyn played a central role in these annual conferences, alongside Tony Benn and Ralph Miliband. And running parallel was the increasing involvement of social movements in collaborative relationships with radical left local councils. Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell’s leadership of the Greater London Council was the exemplary case, as the GLC supported autonomous extra-parliamentary movements as a necessary condition for carrying through its radical policies.

It was these experiences that gave the idea of being ‘in and against the state’ its relevance: supporting the redistributive and regulatory role of the state, as laid down by the 1945 Labour government, but transforming how the state was organised, including going beyond representative, parliamentary institutions and opening state institutions to a variety of forms of popular participation.

Extra-parliamentary power

The idea of a democratic revolution is not just about transforming the state, however. It is also about challenging non-state forms of unaccountable power. Here again the Bennites made common cause with liberation and direct-action movements, recognising that the extra-parliamentary power of capital was beyond the reach of parliament in its present form. Benn appreciated, as do Corbyn and McDonnell today, that the distinctive source of power that workplace trade unionism could bring to bear against corporate power is crucial to real economic change; that the autonomous feminist movement is necessary for women’s emancipation; and so on, applying the same principle of collaboration to community struggles, the peace movement, environmental campaigns and others.

This represented a radical break from the Tribune tradition. Far from welcoming a collaboration with social movements, the Tribune group of the 1980s increasingly saw extra-parliamentary struggle as counterposed to electoral activity and, especially as they moved closer to government, they strongly opposed it. There was an angry relationship between Tony Benn and Michael Foot on exactly this issue.

This emergence of a new left around but also beyond Benn and the Labour Party (fiercely loyal to the party, Benn nonetheless acknowledged that ‘being in the Labour Party is not the be all and end all’) got buried by the defeats of Thatcherism. The movement that led to Corbyn is leading to its retrieval and is itself experimenting with being both inside and outside Labour on a basis of mutual collaboration.

There is an inevitable tension between electoral activity and engagement with social movements, between winning governmental power and building extra-parliamentary power. Both are needed if a party with socialist policies is to implement its mandate. But how does it win within the political system as it is, while at the same time nurturing the transformative power that it will surely need once it is elected?

It is crucial here that the Labour Party is willing to change its culture, so that it is ceases to be as exclusively electoral and dogmatically parliamentary as in the past. Momentum and The World Transformed are creating a space for a more open, horizontal, self-transformative and movement-like culture to thrive, and are beginning to influence the Labour Party. We hope Red Pepper, with its roots inside and outside the party, is a resource for strengthening this process.

We respect that Tribune, under its new owner, Jacobin, is focusing more on the inside. And admiring Jacobin’s record of socialist journalism in the US, we look forward to a lively dialogue as we work for both Corbyn’s electoral victory and the effective extra-parliamentary movement that will be needed to ensure its broader, long-term success.

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